About the issues

Published 2:38 pm Saturday, July 31, 2010

Editor’s Note: The following is a chance to get to know the four candidates running for Freeborn County sheriff. This is the second of two parts. This second part will focus on issues in the election and goals the candidates would like to achieve as sheriff. The first part was about their personal life and work experience.

The four candidates running for Freeborn County sheriff all voiced their concerns about the budget situation and their plans to stay within the budget or reduce it. All touted their leadership experience and plans for the county if elected sheriff. All are concerned about the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract, because it is such a complex issue. The candidates are featured in reverse alphabetical order by last name:

Ryan Merkouris

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Merkouris is currently a patrolman with the Albert Lea Police Department and is running for sheriff because he believes the management needs to be changed to improve the working environment in the Sheriff’s Office.

“What I offer the county is that I’m young, energetic, honest, trustworthy and a leader,” Merkouris said.

Because he has worked in the Sheriff’s Office and the Albert Lea Police Department he has seen how both operate. He said he has seen advantages and disadvantages to various operations in both departments. He also hopes he can create a better working relationship between the departments.

“I bring an openness and willingness to work with the Sheriff’s Office, Police Department, all cities within Freeborn County and the county-wide fire system,” Merkouris said.

He believes the administration currently is not as effective as it could be. He also thinks that some duties can be collaborated with the city police department and gave the examples of drug task force work and some detective work.

Some of his plans if elected are to restructure the department. He believes he can make it more efficient to better fit the needs of Freeborn County. He said he doesn’t believe people are being used to their full abilities.

Merkouris was the union steward when he worked for the Sheriff’s Office earlier in his career. He said he works well with all groups of people and has always strived to be a leader.

“I have a knack for leading by example,” Merkouris said.

He said he is concerned about the budget in the Sheriff’s Office and believes he can easily meet the budget or reduce spending.

“There are definitely areas where you can cut back and look at other options,” Merkouris said.

He said he would like to make some hourly workers salaried to save on overtime costs. With his restructuring plan he would assign more patrol officers on the street, which would reduce the need for overtime.

While he has no grant-writing experience, he said he would utilize those in the department who are able to write grants. That would be one example of working with the current staff to help them excel in the areas they have experience in. He doesn’t necessarily think grants are a good thing because the money is coming from tax payers. He would like to work more efficiently with what the county already has.

“Grants have a place and time but if you’re going to get a grant let’s go after a grant for something we’ll use on a continuous basis,” Merkouris said.

Merkouris said he doesn’t know the specific details and financial information for the ICE contract, but his biggest problem with it is that it could be canceled at any time by the federal government. He’s also concerned about the amount of unemployment that would be paid to jail staff if the contract were canceled.

He said he will work with the media to help inform the public about pertinent issues. He said there are advantages to working with news media so information can get to residents of the county.

Merkouris hopes that residents will take a close look at all the candidates before voting.

“It says magnitudes about the Sheriff’s Office with this many people running [for sheriff],” Merkouris said. “The management style needs to be changed to improve morale and the working environment.”

Bob Kindler

Kindler is currently a supervisor detective in the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office and is running for sheriff because he believes he can make positive changes in the administration. He is also concerned because people who work in the office are not being treated equally.

“I would like to get rid of the current dissension that exists and empower our employees to be the best they can be, which will restore professionalism and morale in the agency,” Kindler said.

He said in the 23 years he has worked there that morale among the employees has never been as low as it is currently, and he believes the low morale is because of inequitable treatment of employees. Some of his plans as sheriff would be to reorganize the office to help maintain or slightly reduce the budget. One example of reorganizing would be to convert hourly employees to salaried to reduce overtime.

“We always go over the overtime budget,” Kindler said.

He said it’s an unpredictable number, and some overtime hours are reimbursed by the federal government. As sheriff he would use strategic planning to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the department. He would like to supplement training in many areas. One of his goals is to work cooperatively with other agencies in the county and he gave the examples of the Department of Human Services and the Highway Department.

Kindler says he has grant-writing experience. He would use publicly available grants because they’re in the public’s best interest. He said private grants usually need matching funds or have strings attached, so he wouldn’t apply for a grant just for the sake of applying for it.

“If it’s something we can use that will benefit our abilities we will absolutely pursue them,” Kindler said.

His leadership experience comes from being a supervisor for 15 years. He has supervised patrol staff, some office staff and detention center staff.

“I’ve been involved in the hiring process and background investigations of many individuals,” Kindler said.

He said with his supervision of employees he has gained their trust and some seek out his advice. He believes that working with the media is important to be effective in protecting and serving residents of Freeborn County.

Kindler said he would not try to cancel the ICE contract if elected because it would not be in the county’s best interest to opt out of the contract. He believes it is not making money, but that it’s producing revenue which is used to offset costs at the jail. He believes it would be good to have a plan in place if the federal government decides to opt out of the contract.

Another of Kindler’s goals as sheriff would be to increase traffic safety and reduce the number of vehicle crashes. He would like to establish a traffic safety program to teach adults and teens about safe driving. Another part of the plan would be to increase enforcement during peak times that crashes occur.

“Enforcement will reduce speed, but education is needed to get information out that it’s speed and distracted driving that cause these crashes,” Kindler said.

He would also like to focus on training those in the sheriff’s department about electronic crimes. He says he is the only one currently who has training in Internet crimes, which he says are increasing rapidly. Kindler said he has the trust and respect of those he works with and hopes he’s elected to fulfill the plans he has for the county.

“We need to be more efficient so we can be more effective,” Kindler said.

Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson is currently a patrol deputy with the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office and said he’s running for sheriff to bring openness, honesty and integrity back to the Sheriff’s Office and Freeborn County.

“I am truly running for the community and the Sheriff’s Office and not for my personal gain,” Johnson said.

Some problems he sees are an excessive loss of seasoned patrol officers, a lack of leadership from the current sheriff, Mark Harig, and favoritism inside and outside the office, as well as unnecessary spending. He is also concerned about the reported disciplinary action taken against the current sheriff’s police license. He wasn’t able to give more information about this disciplinary action.

Within the budget, Johnson said he believes there are areas in the budget where he could cut spending and save the county about $100,000. He wouldn’t say specifically where in the budget he could save this money. He believes he will be able to use less money than the budgeted amount given to the Sheriff’s Office. He enjoys math and said it’s one of his strengths.

One of his goals as sheriff would be to educate the public and volunteers who work with the Sheriff’s Office. An example of this is to help volunteers like firefighters and other groups learn what the deputies need when talking about a situation.

He would also like to establish an anonymous tip phone number or e-mail so that people could report non-emergency issues without having to leave their name and information. He believes this would save time because currently all tips given must include the name and address information of the caller. He thinks it would save time to not require this, and he thinks it would make the public feel more comfortable reporting things.

Johnson believes the current administration has lost touch with the community by concentrating on specific needs. One example is the drug problem. He thinks drugs are a problem but that there are other issues like burglaries and domestic abuse that need attention as well. He said the current sheriff cares for himself more than the public.

“He also shows favoritism to certain businesses,” Johnson said.

As a leader, Johnson has had experience in the Marine Corps. He was in charge of groups numbering from 10 to 50. He said he would have no problem leading the Sheriff’s Office. Johnson has no grant-writing experience but would use other staff who know how to write grants. He said he’d be aggressive in applying for grants only if the grant was for something the office needed.

Johnson thinks it’s important to work with the news media to get information to residents of the county. He would like to make sure people are getting straight answers and clear up misinformation.

Johnson believes the ICE contract is good for Freeborn County. He would like to look further into the costs of the contract.

“I have nothing against the ICE contract,” Johnson said.

He said he’s running for sheriff because he has the most background and knowledge in law enforcement than any other candidate. He said his time as a military police officer in the Marines and working in law enforcement around the country, as well as his four-year degree in law enforcement, put him above his competition.

“I am ready for change and hope the people are too,” Johnson said. “Please vote Aug. 10.”

Mark Harig

Mark Harig is currently in his second term and eighth year as Freeborn County Sheriff and is running for sheriff because he still has goals he’d like to accomplish in the county.

Some goals he’s working on are installing in-car cameras in squad cars to protect officers as well as record facts of incidents. Another project is installing mobile data terminals (laptops) in all squad cars to keep up with the newest technology. He was able to get the equipment free from the state patrol, and the county will have to pay installation costs. He’s working on a next-generation 911 project that would allow people to text message 911 emergencies or send streaming video that could be sent to squad cars.

“I’ve got a lot of goals,” Harig said. “Some are on-going that I’ve been working on for the last seven years and some are new.”

Another goal is to make the emergency operation center functional when the ARMER radio system starts. He is hopeful the system will be installed by September. He is working with the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association to standardize all policies in the department to protect against lawsuits targeting incomplete policies.

Having worked with the budget as sheriff he doesn’t believe he’s ever been over budget. Sometimes the department uses more overtime than budgeted, but as in the case of the June tornadoes those hours are reimbursed by the federal government. He said patrolmen are in a rotating schedule so that the schedule is fair to all employees. He knows it’s not popular among the seniority in the department, but he said he can’t promise only day shifts to the people who have been there the longest. He said doing so would leave the deputies with less experience on the night shift for much of their career, and he doesn’t think that’s fair to all the employees or the residents of Freeborn County.

Harig said he has experience writing grants but that he also uses other staff to write grants as well. He said the department uses a lot of grants to cover costs of annual training. He also believes grants can help supply the department with newer technology that it couldn’t afford on its own.

One of his goals if he were elected for a third term would be to aggressively train less experienced deputies for future retirements. He said there are several employees in their 50s and other employees will need to be ready for advancement.

Harig has supported the ICE contract since its inception in Freeborn County. He still believes it’s a valuable resource for the county, and he said the jail is more efficient than it’s ever been.

“We put a lot of time into planning for it,” Harig said. “We had to project all of our expenses.”

When it was proposed to the county commissioners it was unanimously approved. He believes the contract is helpful to the federal government and to Freeborn County. He doesn’t think it’s a sheriff’s right to want to cancel the ICE contract after it was approved by the county, and he hopes none of the other candidates do so if they are elected.

He said his experience is what puts him above the other candidates running for sheriff. He’s had seven full years as Freeborn County Sheriff and 37 years working in law enforcement in the county.

“I love my job,” Harig said. “I’ve got a good working relationship with the county commissioners, fire associations and collaborate with lots of associations.”

He said he also thinks fundraising is a positive thing. He is involved with the Bike-A-Thon, which benefits the American Cancer Society, and other fundraising events which help fund things when grants aren’t available.

He said he’s listened to some of the ideas the other candidates have, and many he’s already looked into. He would also like to make hourly workers salaried to save money on overtime costs, but he’s not able to make anyone salaried without giving them much more authority. He said he also cut costs in the jail when the food service was upgraded, which saved 35 cents on each meal served.

Harig said he knows other people in the department have goals, and he believes they could be sheriff one day if they’re persistent.

“There’s still a few things I’d like to get done,” Harig said. “Your legacy is not what you accomplish, it’s what you leave behind — my goal is to leave this office the best trained it can be.”

He doesn’t know how many more terms it will take to accomplish that goal, but he’s not ready to quit yet.

Each of the candidates has yard signs throughout the county: